Large Scale Institutional Changes: Land Demarcation Within the British Empire

Gary D. Libecap, Dean Lueck, Trevor O'Grady

NBER Working Paper No. 15820
Issued in March 2010
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Environment and Energy Economics, Law and Economics

This paper examines the economics of large scale institutional change by studying the adoption of the land demarcation practices within the British Empire during the 17th through 19th Centuries. The advantages of systematic, coordinated demarcation, such as with the rectangular survey, relative to individualized, haphazard demarcation, such as with metes and bounds, for reducing transaction costs were understood by this time and incorporated into British colonial policy. Still, there was considerable variation in the institutions adopted even though that the regions had similar legal structures and immigrant populations. We study the determinants of institutional change by developing an analytical framework, deriving testable implications, and then analyzing a data set that includes U.S., Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand temperate colonies using GIS data. We find that a simple framework that outlines the costs and benefits of implementing the demarcation systems can explain the different institutions that are observed. Once in place, these institutions persist, indicating a strong institutional path dependence that can influence transaction costs, the extent of land markets, and the nature of resource use. The agricultural land institutions that we examine remain in force today, in some cases over 300 years later. In this regard, institutions of land are durable, much as are other institutions, such as language and law.

download in pdf format
   (2994 K)

email paper

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w15820

Published: "Large Scale Institutional Changes: Land Demarcation within the British Empire" with Dean Lueck and Trevor O’Grady, Journal of Law and Economics 2011

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Libecap and Lueck w14942 The Demarcation of Land and the Role of Coordinating Institutions
Grubb w15028 Land Policy: Founding Choices and Outcomes, 1781-1802
Alston and Mueller w15771 Property Rights, Land Conflict and Tenancy in Brazil
Grafton, Landry, Libecap, McGlennon, and O'Brien w16203 An Integrated Assessment of Water Markets: Australia, Chile, China, South Africa and the USA
Libecap w12598 The Assignment of Property Rights on the Western Frontier: Lessons for Contemporary Environmental and Resource Policy
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us